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December 6, 2018

Eradicating extremism

Opinion

December 6, 2018

It is encouraging to see the action taken against Khadim Hussain Rizvi and his close aides, as well as a dozen others. The government has brought charges of sedition and treason against a cleric who was able to paralyse the country at will with no one to put a stop to his illegal actions.

We hope the message that is sent through the government’s move is loud and clear and that in the future there will be fewer acts of brutality against people, such as the sit-in at Faizabad in November last year which brought life to a halt in the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, and the mobs that took to the streets and the motorway after Aasia Bibi’s acquittal, attacking vehicles, threatening people – particularly women – and closing down the main link between the federal capital and Lahore.

However, if we imagine that this will put an end to extremism in our country, we are wrong. There are other so-called clerics or extremist leaders who need to be tackled as well. But going beyond their role is the issue of the extent to which extremism has snaked its way into society and made inroads everywhere. Schoolchildren have been known to quote a simple Quranic verse on their exam papers and beseech examiners to give them passing grades on the basis of their piety. This obviously doesn’t help produce future doctors, physicists, teachers, lawyers or other professionals.

The thinking that exists among these professionals has also been demonstrated on more than one occasion, notably by lawyers who in 2011 greeted Mumtaz Qadri, the killer of ex-Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, as a hero when he was brought to court. Many joint his funeral procession, even though these are the people who ought to be upholding the law of the land and, regardless of what an individual’s opinion on blasphemy, Qadri had clearly violated this law by committing murder.

There are also extremist elements in textbooks taught to children, even though an improvement has been seen over the last decade – most notably in Sindh and Punjab. However, as Dr Tariq Banuri – the chairman of HEC and a Harvard-educated economist – has pointed out in various research papers written over the past two decades, extremism cannot be eliminated while madressahs still exist. These schools, often unregistered and run by semi-educated or uneducated clerics, currently offer education to around two million children across the country. The figure may be higher, since many madressahs are unregistered and new ones keep cropping up at street corners in all our cities and most towns.

As Dr Banuri has pointed out, there is a clear difference of opinion on the status of women, our relations with our neighbouring countries, and the nature of the state and other aspects of life between madressah students and those who attend mainstream schools where religious studies are offered alongside a broader curriculum. It has also been pointed out by other scholars and researchers that those running madressahs generally aim to keep out those opinions that don’t fit with their vision of reality. They are reluctant to accept a different view of the world.

We should also remember that former students from madressahs in Pakistan were involved in the July 2005 attacks in London, which killed 52 people and created mass panic across the city. Since 9/11 in 2001, they have also been linked to other terrorist attacks, most of them in our own country and others in places across the world.

Under these circumstances, the attempt to mainstream madressah education has to be thought about carefully. However, it is important that we are able to break away from extremist mindsets, notably among our younger people, in a nation where the population of 220 million is dominated by the youth. Achieving this will not be easy. Beyond charging Khadim Rizvi or others of his ilk, it is essential that we carefully examine curriculums at all educational institutions and also prod the media into using its powers to bring about changes in mindsets.

People who represent a different point of view to that of the clerics or voice ideologies that are opposed by the religious right must be allowed to speak out. Silencing their voices can only further solidify extremist thought and dampen the voices thatchallenge it.

Books hold a key to this. Promoting reading among children of all ages is an important way to broaden minds and encourage people to think outside the parameters that exist at present. Public libraries that are open to people of all ages are desperately required. Schools naturally need to encourage their pupils to visit them. The internet, which has become an alternative to reading, offers too much dangerous material in terms of extremist ideas or material that promotes sectarian hatred. It is best to persuade young people to look at other avenues to gather information and formulate their own ideas and thoughts.

The task is a difficult one. The charges against Rizvi and his supporters are a step forward. The government needs to be commended for taking them. But much more needs to follow. A suitable policy must be devised and put in place. It could begin at the mosque level, where prayer leaders could be persuaded to impart a wider vision of the world than is currently the case in many of our mosques. We also need to bring society together. The division into multiple sects is exacerbated in some cases by the suggestion contained within schoolbooks that one school of thought is superior to the other. The notion that all beliefs must be treated as equal has to be promoted and tolerance built.

This will only happen step-by-step. It can neither take place overnight nor happen through isolated actions. A conference to discuss extremism and ways in which to eradicate it from our educational institutions and other places could be a starting point. There are a number of excellent research findings on this problem and the impact of madressahs on society. These need to be studied, reviewed and used to help devise a policy that can alter the manner in which people think.

Extremism appears to exist almost everywhere. This has been a change that has come about since the 1980s and directly as a consequence of policies adopted by the late General Ziaul Haq. The hands of the clock need to be turned back. We need to recall a Pakistan that accepted all its people and gave them the space to choose their lifestyles. There is an excellent documentation of this Pakistan that remained in place well into the 1970s.

Of course, not all aspects of it were ideal. But certainly, extremism was less marked, less visible and less dangerous. We need to find ways to move back into the past while still taking strides that can safeguard our future and the future of generations to come. Thinker and scholars should play a role to help develop this task and find ways to lead us forward, beyond the age of Rizvi and his thugs.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]

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